Trans Mountain: Finding Common Ground Between Progressives in Alberta and British Columbia

Life has me between Edmonton and Vancouver these days, and the disconnect I have noticed between progressive circles in both cities over pipelines is a bit jarring.

The split isn’t as simple as pro / anti. It’s whether pipelines are necessary to secure a progressive climate change policy in Canada for the long-term.

The issue flared up again over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval of Trans Mountain and Line 3 (and rejection of Northern Gateway) last week.

From my perspective, the differences stem from the political realities and stakes in each province.

The Premier of Alberta is likely the most powerful politician when it comes to regulating national emissions. And as an Albertan who has been active in environmental policy discussions, I know what it takes to bring the necessary support on board for policies such as carbon pricing, better environmental monitoring, eradicating energy production from coal, etc. It’s a hard sell in an economy dependent on oil and gas production, especially when prices have collapsed.

More concerning is that Premier Rachel Notley’s opponents are the likes of Brian Jean and Jason Kenney. These are politicians who will do nothing to curb emissions or protect the environment if they come to power. No price on carbon. No shutting down coal-fired power plants. No real commitment to meeting the targets set in Paris.

That’s why these pipeline approvals are so important. For decades, progressives in Alberta, like Premier Rachel Notley, have argued that in addition to the moral argument to act (which resonates with progressives, but not with many other Albertans), taking strong action on emissions and environmental protection is necessary to provide the oil and gas industry in the province the social licence to operate. That by subjecting the sector to stringent environmental monitoring and emissions targets, industry will be better able to find and reach markets for its products.

Jean and Kenney, and their federal counterparts in Alberta, have dismissed and ridiculed this social licence argument. Saying that progressives outside of Alberta don’t really care. Imposing a price on carbon — or any regulation that minimizes the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry — is nothing but an additional cost that reduces the economic competitiveness of the province.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s approval of Trans Mountain and Line 3 proved them wrong. In fact, Trudeau specifically noted that without Premier Notley’s significant action on climate change and environmental protection in the province (and significant is an understatement, given the (in)action of her predecessors), his cabinet wouldn’t have approved the projects. This made the social licence argument to act more credible than it has ever been, and undercut Jean and Kenney’s strongest argument to Albertans for not acting.

However, for many in British Columbia, this isn’t enough. The approvals are still a betrayal. And Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Notley are sell-outs.

Frankly, I just don’t think most British Columbians are aware of the struggles progressives in Alberta face when trying to implement rigorous policies around the environment. That the stakes in the province —Premier Notley losing to Jean and Kenney next election — are high, and would be devastating to our shared objective of stopping Canada’s contribution to runaway climate change.

From my perspective, Line 3 and Trans Mountain are necessary for ensuring that we continue to have a Premier in Alberta that is committed to reducing carbon emissions. While many in BC are unable to square any pipeline approvals with credible action on climate change, believe me, the alternative would be much worse under a Premier Jean or Kenney.

My progressive friends in British Columbia recognize these political realities but still think the pipelines, particularly Trans Mountain, should not be approved.

From two of the brightest I know on these issues:

The long game requires changes in attitudes about climate change everywhere.

The LPC and ABNDP approving a pipeline might be the best thing for the climate given the current political constraints they face. That doesn't mean the best thing for the planet is for the rest of us to quiet down and let the pipeline continue without opposition.

Continuing to oppose the pipeline is an important tool to continue to force climate change to the forefront of the discourse and generate that long-term attitude change.

"In order to achieve a consensus on fighting climate change, to finally put a price on carbon across the country, he had to give up something. It was a pipeline."

That's not balance. That's not consensus. That's just a slight shift from very pro fossil fuel extraction to slightly less very pro fossil fuel extraction.

We're in a period — and will be for the foreseeable future — where climate policy is objectively inadequate. It's simply not commensurate with the scale of the crisis. We should celebrate steps forward, but at the end of the day if the climate movement doesn't keep hammering home the fact that the response is inadequate, then who will? Power concedes nothing without a demand.

There are also plenty of other reasons beyond climate change I'm opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Indigenous rights; not wanting all this additional tanker traffic running through my city and threatening its environment and economy; not wanting the Canadian economy doubling down on soon-to-be-obsolete fossil extraction, when we should be getting a foothold in the renewable economy.


Amy Sanderson07/12/16